Back to the Future for the Catholic Church?

married priest“As it was in the beginning, it now and ever shall be…” pretty much sums up what most of us know about the history of the Catholic Church; it’s always just sort of been there just like it is.

And priests have always been celibate, so stories about young parishioners being molested have been part of Church history since, well, since forever.

Not so, in fact.

The Roman Catholic Church has changed greatly over its long life, and one of the points that has changed is the issue of celibacy for the Clergy.

Until about the 13th century, celibacy was seen as optional.

In fact, most priests and other officials in the early Church were married. The first 39 Popes, from St. Peter (AD32-AD67) to St. Anastasius I (AD399-AD401), were married. During this time also, women were ordained to the priesthood; but that came to an end in AD494.

It was 13th Century Medieval politics that forced the issue. The Church leadership decided that the best way for it to stay out of the nepotism and succession problems was to have an unmarried clergy that was not involved in the fights.

This might be a good time to explain the difference between priests and clerics. A priest is engaged in a vocation of service, a spiritual calling from God. A cleric occupies an organizational position in the institutional church. A man can be a priest without being a cleric.

When a priest marries, he is dismissed from the clerical state. But he retains the fullness of the priesthood, since he has been ordained to be a priest, not a cleric. Ordination is permanent (Canon 290 in Church law). He can, as the saying goes, “do the marryin’ and the buryin’,” and should properly be referred to as an “ex-cleric”, rather than “ex-priest.”

But the issue of mandatory clerical celibacy has actually created three large problems.

One is, of course, the problem of child abuse by the clergy. Settlements to plaintiffs have exceeded $3 billion in the United States alone (over $600 million just for the Los Angeles Archdiocese), and much more when other countries such as Australia and Ireland are included.

And this, of course, is money that cannot be used to feed the hungry, maintain the schools, or keep churches open.

The second large problem actually causes the first. According to people both inside and outside of the Church, the system itself of recruiting, training, and supporting the priests creates the conditions where the priests become abusers; in many cases, the new priests are abused by the priests training them, who may in their turn have been abused by their priests.

The third large problem created by enforced celibacy rules is a shortage of priests. Thousands of Catholic priests have left their churches when forced to choose between a family and the Church. This has left parishes without priests and priests without parishes. There are an estimated 20,000 married, ordained Roman Catholic priests in the United States (many thousands more, worldwide) who would be available and pleased to serve a parish again.

Stop-gap efforts like Rent-A-Priest are a help, but not a long-term solution.

Back To The Future?

Granted, solving others’ problems sometimes seems easier than it really is. But the Catholic Church already has the resources in place to resolve two of the three problems cited above; the lawsuits will have to proceed through the courts.

The first resource, perhaps not well enough known, is the Old Catholic Church, sometimes known as the Old Catholic Mission Church. It was formed in the late 19th Century when certain Dutch and German Catholics split with the Roman Catholic Church over doctrines like Papal Infallibility.

There are several Old Catholic churches in Southern California. Some web sites are listed below.

Old Catholic priests can marry, and therein may lie some of the answer. Oddly, the once-divisive issue of Papal Infallibility may also hold a key to the solution.

The doctrine of infallibility holds that the Pope speaks without error when he speaks ex cathedra (literally, “from the throne”, that is, officially). Therefore, the whole issue of enforced celibacy could be nullified with a pronouncement and a signature.

Then, if it wished, the Church could return to its roots: make celibacy a personal choice, allow-even encourage-married priests, ordain women again, and bring back Altar Girls.

john macmurrayUntil and unless this takes place, Catholics still have the option of attending one of the Old Catholic Churches.

The second resource is Catholics themselves. National polls show that a majority of America’s 60+ million Catholics prefer married clergy, arguing that they can better understand the issues that the parishioners are dealing with. When this many people speak, the Church leadership is likely to listen.

John MacMurray

Thursday, 21 February 2013

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  1. DrRosemaryEileenMcHugh says

    Thankyou for this informative article. My brother was ordained a priest for the archdiocese of Chicago and left about 2 years later when he fell in love with one of the single teachers in the first parish that he was assigned to. I am so happy that he had the courage to leave. He and his wife have 5 lovely children and 4 grandchildren so far. Tom is the director of religious education in his parish, but sadly the church will not let those good men who left the priesthood to marry to return to active priestly ministry. My brother accepts the situation as he still loves the church. I am a physician and I have met many who have been sexually abused by priests. I too was sexually assaulted by a Carmelite priest when I was a young doctor in Dublin, Ireland. I have been given wonderful help by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). The President of SNAP, Barbara Blaine, helped me to write a police report on my case. The leaders of SNAP have been sexually abused by priests as children and want to help the church to care about protecting children from sexual abuse by priests. It is shameful how the church is still trying to deny the truth whenever they can get away with their lies. I am very supportive of SNAP.
    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago

  2. bren kryg says

    Most of Old Catholic priests are not as well educated as the “real” Catholic priests and seminarians. If ever it happens, Old Catholic priests wanting to join the “real” Catholic Church should be: a) screened thoroughly, and b) reeducated in Catholic theological schools, seminaries, and universities. Some Old Catholic priests have weird theological ideas.

  3. says

    Mr. MacMurray, I’m an L.A. victim of sex abuse in the Catholic Church. I handcuffed my self to Cardinal Mahoney’s throne here and did 300 hours of community service for my “crime”.
    I would like you to know about further crimes committed on victims by the fraudulent counter intelligence group SNAP. the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests. SNAP was founded by the Church to “control victims and our families” and that it most certainly has done.
    Activist victims from across the country and the world have had real questions about SNAP’s policies and management from the get go; yet it took us years to figure out that SNAP really is damage control. We have documentation and our own horrific experiences with SNAP. We need just one good investigative reporter. Are you that person? Feel free to contact me. Thanks.

    • jmacmurray says

      Hi, Jim,
      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I am looking into this to see if I may be able to help; back to you as soon as I can.

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